Saturday, February 04, 2006


OK. Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say from the outset that I am a Hughes supporter, and that if you go to his campaign website you will in fact see my name in the list of supporters.

That said, what I want to explore is why I have arrived at this decision. The place to start for a look at this contest is, I would say, a look at the party's position. We have come out of the last election with a strong but simmultaneously disappointing position. The Lib Dems won extra votes for their opposition to the Iraq war, an issue which anyone with much judgement at the time could see would drag on for a while. They won approval for their leader, Charles Kennedy, though some uncharitably criticised him for his slip on tax policy at an early morning press conference. They won probably the same degree of approval they normally have for the rest of their actual policies. Now they have publically exorcised Kennedy, they are left with their basic position mainly the way it always has been, and the likelihood that (through force of American opinion) the Iraq war will have been handed over to the Iraqis to fight among themselves by the next election.

So, on the face of things, it doesn't look good. The next election, they will almost certainly (barring Alien abduction or somesuch unforseen circumstance) be up against Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Cameron has made a spirited play for the Lib Dems' voters. I don't see this getting too far, though. It a fair assumption that most Lib Dems would rather see a Labour than a Tory government, backed up by many polls showing that the party members see themselves as more the left than the right. Unless Cameron is spectacularly credible on issues close to our hearts (the environment is uppermost in my mind here), Lib Dems are not going to be abandoning ship in his direction in a big way. The loss of support for them in the wake of current media hype would seem to support this theory. It has largely contributed to a Labour bounce, not a Tory one.

Remember, Lib Dem voters are generally quite well informed. They will look into Cameron's claims with some scrutiny, and my belief is that by the time the small fight in the Conservative party has resolved itself, it is fairly inevitable that Cameron's agenda will have conceded a little ground to the Tebbit school of thought. Environmentally sensitive taxes are sure not to be top of the agenda, and it would seem that, quietly, the Tories are already sticking the knife into the very idea that directors of companies should be answerable to the public on what they do to the environment. I don't think that, played right at the election, the Lib Dems campaign should suffer much from the Tories.

What is much more of a problem is the classic "Do you want to wake up with a Tory MP?" scare from Labour. With the Tories resurgent the Lib Dems are far more likely to be squeezed that way. Of course, the great argument to that is that a strong third party in a political landscape of fairly evenly matched (Cameron is no Blair, neither is Brown) main parties, the third party, even outside of the oft-touted hung parliament, has a fair amount of weight to it. It only takes a few rebellious MPs on either side (especially if we're still in a Labour majority) to turn the situation into one where the Lib Dems can seriously affect the vote, and thus wield influence over the government on what comes before the house to be voted on.

Nonetheless, I would say that opposing the current government should remain the focus of the Lib Dems, whilst trumpeting loudly their actions where they go beyond the Tories' in the areas that Cameron is trying to move in on. I don't believe it is incompatible with stealing Tory and Labour seats to do this. If handled well, the Lib Dems could even conduct a campaign of painting the Tories as turning themselves into watered down Lib Dems (a nice turning of the tables from the days when we were accused of being cuddly Tories). We need to stop trying to lure Tories on the same reasons that they might vote Tory, and instead convince them that the things we focus on are more important.

In fact, that brings me to one of the central problems in perception the Lib Dems face. For a long time, they have suffered under an image of dithering and ill-definedness in their policies. It is an easy and lazy smear to throw in our direction to call us woolly, to accuse of being all things to all men. Even when we clearly had policies at the last election that weren't to everybody's taste, now that the election is out of people's memories, this is the line used to marginalise us. A consent around this idea has been manufactured by the other two parties, aided and abetted by a media for whom political impartiality is much easier when the public (and therefore they) only think in one political dimension.

As you may notice, my last post was a graph of my own political position. It shows politics in two separate dimensions, related but not fixed to each other. It is quite possible to be economically left or right wing, and for that to have little or no bearing on your sense of authoritarianism/libertarianism. The Lib Dems need to communicate this new way to evaluate politics to the country, at least sufficiently to get it on the radar in some sense. For too long, we have laboured under the old left-right line, when it is no longer the focus of our arguments.

When even the Tories are happy using the word 'redistribution', and when the last election at one point devolved into an argument over whether you can call pledging to increase spending by less than someone else a 'cut', you know we've more or less reached a consensus on that line. That's why the political pundits you get on TV and in the papers will tell you that the parties are all in a big smush in the middle of the spectrum, and yet you still get some quite heated debates between them on occasion. They're looking at the wrong spectrum. Sure we've all snuggled up together in the same band on the left right axis, but we sure as hell haven't on the authoritarian/liberal one.

Look at the arguments going on right now: Freedom of speech in the religious hatred bill in the UK, in America they're about the government's illegal wiretap scandal. The "war on terror"'s pressures on our civil liberties have brought these issues to the fore, but even before that, this is where the real action is. But the two other parties have a vested interest in stopping people thinking on this axis, because as soon as you think about it, it becomes clear that actually what we have in this country is not a centre-left, a right wing and a wooly fudge party, but we have two centre-authoritarian parties and one liberal one. As soon as people see this axis, they will both see the party for what we are, and vote to correct the imbalance.

And look, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to claim that the Lib Dems know exactly who they are. What I'm saying is that the reason we're seen as ill-defined is because we define ourselves on the axis that nobody else defines themselves on. Labour and Conservative define themselves in the left-right direction. So people who wish to identify themselves on that axis join one or the other, regardless of their positioning on the liberal-authoritarian axis. People who wish to define themselves as liberal join the Lib Dems, regardless of their position on the left-right axis. As a result, Labour and Conservatives alike are just as fuzzy on the liberal-authoritarian axis as the Lib Dems are on the left-right line.

So into all this, we see three (now) leadership candidates step into the fray. All of them, obviously, have pretty good liberal credentials, but there are differences on the left-right axis. Hughes is tradtionally the more leftwing, but to be honest I simply see him as the more honest about his thoughts. But what we have to accept, for the moment, is that the thinking is not going to change. People are going to think on the left-right axis, and they are going to see Hughes as leftish, Huhne and Campbell as centre right.

So why pick Hughes? Because, as ever, Labour have a large group of members who are not content with their actual party. A proper signal that the so-called "orange book" tendency is in the minority, like they wish it was in their own party, might have the best chance of attracting the Labour votes the party needs. Anyone who really is ideologically a Tory will never vote for a party who believe in fair taxation and real steps to help the environment that won't benefit business. Some people who simply vote Tory out of tribal opposition to Labour might come join us, but that is frankly a bonus. As we saw in the 2005 election, to base a strategy around bringing down Tory seats is a non-starter.

So the clearest message to the voters we need to attract to the party would be to pick Hughes. Happily enough, I also happen to think that, talented communicator as he is, he's the best person to then try to get the idea across to the electorate that we need to move on from the left-right mypoia that we currently suffer from. On top of that, Campbell is quite well placed where he is, as an elder statesman who speaks very well on foreign policy. Huhne may well be useful to the party as a now better known face, but in all honesty I don't think he's well known enough to be leader, and a vote for him as leader would simply suggest to most people that we are an irrelevance, happy to be led by someone they've not even heard of.

I don't subscribe to the idea that Ming Campbell is too old, but I do wonder whether he is perhaps a little inexperienced in having to think in the slightly juvenile ways a party leader has to, on occasion, to avoid embarrassment. As was so evident from his first PMQs as acting leader, he is quite able to shoot himself in the foot with a question that a more savvy man might have seen was a bad idea. Leave him where he is, as the respected advocate of liberal internationalism that he is, out of the glare of too much presentational scrutiny. He works for a Newsnight audience (and frequently proves it), but for the public, too easily distracted by irrelevancies, he is not the man to carry our torch.

So having talked down Hughes's opponents, why do I think he's up to it? Obviously, I couldn't disccuss this topic without at least mentioning his recent problems. To be honest, I don't think it's as damaging as people would like to think, and as evidenced by the poll taken by ICM it's clear that actually people take to him the best overall. As far as the stain on his record it supposedly represents, I think several things need to be said. Firstly, that this view is generally put across by partisan commentators. Second, I think people understand why one might lie about this kind of thing, because really the sort of non-committal answers he gave the question before were getting him nowhere.

Lastly, I think, as Johann Hari pointed out, that a far greater reflection on Hughes's character is given by his brave actions in relation to the murder of a constituent, which led to a price of £10,000 being put on his head. The man is, in his public life, a passionate and principled advocate for his view of the world. Privately, he may have had any number of reasons to keep his sexuality hidden. I don't think it's an excuse, but I do think consideration should be given to his point that it's harder for MPs still around from the era when gay MPs did have to hide their sexuality to be electable to suddenly switch policy and come out than it is for MPs who've just arrived to simply be open about it.

And lastly, one small point: HE'S BISEXUAL, NOT GAY! The continual refusal of so many people to take on this important distinction is maddening and frankly offensive. It speaks to an attitude of 'once a poof always a poof', and suggests that these people really don't care about the details of his life one bit, but simply want to focus on the supposed 'scandal'. One expects this sort of behaviour from the Sun, but I don't want to see such attitudes reflected by the rest of the, more sane, media.

Well, I'll stop there. You're probably quite bored by now, to be honest. Vote Hughes!


Greg said...

"The loss of support for them in the wake of current media hype would seem to support this theory. It has largely contributed to a Labour bounce, not a Tory one."

What the polls over the last six months suggest is that the softest LibDem support is perfectly prepared to go to the Tories - it is this group which are responsible for the rise in the Tory vote from c33-4% to c37-38%. They are attracted by a positive Tory message.

Then you have a group of supporters who will probably run back to Labour (this is what is seen in the latest slump surrounding the leadership machinations and subsequent revelations).

We don't know where the remaining LibDem support (which probably forms the basis of their pre 1997 support) would go if ever forced to make the choice.

Andy said...

"What the polls over the last six months suggest is that the softest LibDem support is perfectly prepared to go to the Tories - it is this group which are responsible for the rise in the Tory vote from c33-4% to c37-38%. They are attracted by a positive Tory message."

Whilst I partly agree, I don't think this is the segment to worry about, because an attempt to woo them back would almost certainly alienate more support than it would attract. There's a reason they're the softest section of support, and it's this: The Tory vision of liberalism as an argument for why everyone should do what they like and bugger everyone else is not the type of liberalism we practice in the Lib Dems (I would hope it's not, anyway. This, to my mind, is how one justifies a public smoking ban as a liberal policy). They were only ever our supporters because they preferred us to the more hardline, authoritarian Tory leadership. Now that Cameron has them back, perhaps we can get on with putting what is genuinely our agenda forward, without worrying about losing them. We already have. And I don't think they were a terribly significant group anyway; you didn't see the media particularly suggesting our support was plummeting until the recent problems, which, as you seem to agree, went mainly to Labour.